Cisco's Race Is On: 12 Potential John Chambers Successors

Watch The Throne

Succession talk at Cisco is once again on the front burner following CEO John Chambers' comments that he would stick around for two to four more years and that Cisco is beginning to consolidate power in the hands of several short-lister candidates, preparing for a "nonevent" transition.

Most Cisco observers -- including Chambers himself -- think it unlikely that an outsider would come in to lead the company, given Cisco's exacting company culture. But there's always the possibility that Cisco's board, on which Chambers hopes to remain chairman, will go outside for a fresh face to make over the company.

Here are 12 potential candidates, including a handful that Chambers mentioned during an exclusive interview with CRN last week.

Rob Lloyd

Current role: President, Development and Sales, Cisco
Reports to John Chambers

Cisco insiders and Cisco partners describe Lloyd as the front-runner to succeed Chambers, and who's to blame them? Lloyd has run Cisco's global sales organization during some of its best years, is well liked both inside and outside of Cisco's four walls, and has seen his level of exposure skyrocket in the last three years in particular, especially as a competitive spokesman. Partners think highly of him, too -- Lloyd "gets the channel," many say, because he himself ran a Canadian VAR decades ago. Safe money is on Lloyd.

Gary Moore

Current role: President and COO, Cisco
Reports to John Chambers

Moore in 2011 became Cisco's first chief operating officer, and he was no less than the architect of Cisco's massive corporate restructuring, which helped the company refocus on core priorities, streamline itself where it had become fat and lumpy, and restore growth -- however modest -- when some of Cisco's biggest competitors have hit the skids and stayed there.

Moore, who Chambers said would be the one to take the reins if he should suddenly have to step down, is an admirable choice. Against him are two things: At 63, he and Chambers are the same age, and when he became COO, scuttlebutt among the Cisco faithful was that he was not interested in the top job. Did that change?

Chuck Robbins

Current role: SVP, Worldwide Sales, Cisco
Reports to Rob Lloyd

The affable Robbins, beloved by partners for the years he spent as Cisco's U.S. and Canada channel chief, saw his stock rise considerably in the last two years when Cisco's Americas sales organization was consolidated under him during the 2011 restructuring. Robbins now succeeds Lloyd as head of Cisco's worldwide sales within less than a year of his Americas takeover -- another substantial step in one of the more upwardly mobile careers at Cisco.

Edzard Overbeek

Current role: SVP, Cisco Services, Cisco
Reports to Gary Moore

Twelve-year Cisco veteran Overbeek is a dark horse who shouldn't be overlooked in this race. Though less known to U.S.-based solution providers and Cisco observers than other potential candidates, he's thoroughly admired within Cisco's upper echelons for the growth he spearheaded in Cisco's Asia Pacific Japan and Greater China region, which he ran before succeeding Gary Moore as global head of services earlier this year.

Pankaj Patel

Current role: EVP and Chief Development Officer, Cisco Global Engineering
Reports to Rob Lloyd

Pankaj Patel and Padmasree Warrior co-led Cisco's global engineering teams starting in 2011, part of a consolidation that shrank the number of divisional engineering leads at Cisco. Patel then took over sole leadership of engineering following Warrior's shift to the chief strategy officer role earlier in 2012.

Though he has far flashier competition in the ascent to the Cisco summit, Patel is deeply respected inside Cisco -- particularly by its oft-cynical engineering corps -- commands a team of some 23,000 engineering employees, and is also a longtime Cisco hand, having joined the company during its 1996 acquisition of StrataCom. Patel has worn a number of engineering hats during his Cisco tenure, though is best known as the former SVP and general manager for its service provider business and the gains Cisco made in carrier-class routing and video during his stint.

Padmasree Warrior

Current role: CTO and Chief Strategy Officer, Cisco
Reports to John Chambers

As Cisco celebrities go, Warrior's exposure to the industry is second only to Chambers'. Earlier this year, Warrior moved out of her position as co-lead of Cisco's engineering organization and succeeded Ned Hooper as chief strategy officer, a role Chambers in no uncertain terms told CRN, "she's really good at."

She's been at Cisco since 2007, when in a big-splash move, she was wooed and then pried away from Motorola. Could Warrior be the next powerful woman in tech to join Meg Whitman, Ginni Rometty, Marissa Mayer and Ursula Burns in the tier-one C-suite?

Ned Hooper

Current role: In transition

Ned Hooper was Cisco's chief strategy officer and M&A chief until June, when he was confirmed to be exiting the networking king to start an independent investment fund. Following his 13-year rise at Cisco, Hooper was considered to be on the Chambers successor shortlist, though reports from Cisco insiders are conflicted as to whether he was pushed out of his job or not. That would probably make the difference as to whether Hooper would be considered for a return.

Charles Giancarlo

Current role: Managing Director and Head of Value Creation, Silver Lake Partners

A number of current and former Cisco executives have been anointed Chambers' "heir apparent" over the years, but many Cisco observers thought it was former EVP and Chief Development Officer Charles Giancarlo's job to lose.

That was until Giancarlo himself up and left Cisco in December 2007, convinced, according to insiders, that he wouldn't help himself waiting around for Chambers to step aside. A lot's changed at Cisco in the five years hence, but would Giancarlo consider a return? And if he were invited, would he feel crowded by the idea of Chambers remaining as board chairman?

Pat Gelsinger

Current role: CEO, VMware

Gelsinger joined EMC in 2009 following a decorated career at Intel, and as president and COO, appeared to be CEO Joe Tucci's heir apparent at the storage giant. That may still be the case, but Gelsinger's path now includes a stopover at EMC-majority-owned VMware, where Gelsinger replaced Paul Maritz as CEO in July 2012.

The well-liked Gelsinger will be getting a few good looks from Chambers succession watchers -- especially given Cisco's tight, albeit threatened, alliance with EMC and VMware. It'll probably be a few quarters into his control of VMware, however, before they get a sense of his chief executive strengths.

David Donatelli

Current role: EVP, Enterprise Servers, Storage and Networking (ESSN), Hewlett-Packard

Among competitors, HP's Donatelli is often mentioned as a potential Chambers successor, thanks to his name recognition and reputation as a hard-charging sales executive well in tune with the shifts going on in the data center. Any such ship-jump move by Donatelli, however, seems highly unlikely unless things really sour at HP. Why? Most observers see Donatelli as waiting out his chance at the CEO job there, with Meg Whitman's tenure atop the world's largest technology company not viewed as a long-haul bet.

Mike Volpi

Current role: Partner, Index Ventures

Volpi was one of the rising stars in the Cisco galaxy, having run Cisco's business development team and M&A strategy in the late 1990s and later its routing and service provider business before leaving Cisco in 2007.

Like Giancarlo, he's been out of the Cisco game for half a decade -- an eon in tech years -- and seems to be enjoying his role at Index, including a recent appointment as a board member to Cisco WebEx competitor FuzeBox. Still, never say never.

Marc Benioff

Current role: CEO,, and Cisco board member

Far-fetched, you say? Well, consider this: Cisco is making a not-exactly-comfortable transition to a world where software and cloud computing are the most important priorities in the networking and data center segments. And maybe, just maybe, Cisco's board feels it needs an image-booster -- a younger leader with a bold vision and a hipster streak -- for its next top gun.

There's no one on the potential Cisco list even approaching the iconoclast cache Benioff has, and, oh, by the way, he's also now a Cisco board member. Far-fetched? Yes. Impossible? Hardly.

Who Else?

It's tough to imagine the new leader of Cisco wouldn't be one of the previous 12 names mentioned, but several outsiders who have also been chatted about include Kevin Johnson, CEO of Juniper Networks, David DeWalt, former McAfee CEO and finalist to lead Palo Alto Networks, and Mark Hurd (pictured), former HP CEO and current Oracle co-president.

There are also other names within the Cisco hierarchy worthy of a mention -- CFO Frank Calderoni? EVP Randy Pond? EVP Wim Elfrink? SVP and Cisco ACT leader Angel Mendez? CMO Blair Christie? -- although none seems to have even a sliver of buzz.